The Best Stuffing
Stuffing is a State of Mind
There are some foods - I’m thinking fruitcake and sweet potato-marshmallow casserole - which are limited to the holidays for the obvious reason that no one actually likes the way they taste. But there are others that rear their heads but once a year despite being remarkably delicious, like homemade eggnog and especially stuffing. If we’re going to abide this hidebound tradition and eat it only on special occasions we may as well do the thing properly.
I don’t like to repeat myself, but on certain critical points it’s important to do so. In my post about all aspects of turkey cooking I said that, despite its name, stuffing should never be stuffed into anything but a glass baking dish. The main reason for this is that to cook stuffing inside a turkey to a safe temperature requires that the bird itself be baked to a desiccated husk. But stuffing cooked in a dish also benefits from the welcome textural contrast of a crispy top.
Despite the fact that I never use stuffing to stuff anything, I’m still going to keep calling it that until some other name is adopted by universal consent. Some people call stuffing cooked in a pan dressing, which is as ridiculous as calling tomato sauce gravy. I like language that clarifies, so unless the stuffing-cooked-in-a-pan is going to be used to season a big bowl of lettuce it needs its own name. Until a neologism arises, stuffing is the best we have.
This is a good place to take a step back and think about the characteristics of stuffing. The foundation should be some sort of starch, usually bread but sometimes rice or cornbread, robustly seasoned. But this most basic template allows for endless variations, most of which are delicious - veggies, aromatics, meat, and broth, are commonly added. Sometimes, in the pursuit of novelty, an insecure cook will feel a need to perpetrate some atrocity on the guests by adding oysters or feta cheese or mango. If you notice this impulse rising in yourself, resist it. What you do with dried fruits is your business. Personally, I disdain anything sweet, including raisins (especially raisins!) but I grudgingly acknowledge that some people seem to enjoy them. Still, don’t expect to find cranberries or currants in this recipe.
The miracle of good stuffing is that it transforms something fairly bland, like bread, into the most irresistibly savory and toothsome dish on the Thanksgiving table. This can be achieved by anyone, I believe, so long as it is approached with the proper attitude. Making the very best stuffing requires the patience to do every step properly, and to refuse to flinch at certain critical points. When it comes to butter, ‘I dare not’ mustn’t wait upon ‘I would.’
The Actual Recipe
With that preamble, I’ll transition to a more straightforward approach
1 loaf of bread
1 pound ground pork or breakfast sausage
4 tablespoons butter
4 stalks of celery, diced
1 medium yellow onion, diced
1 Tablespoon minced fresh sage or 2 teaspoons dry sage
1 pound chestnut in shell, or 8 oz. peeled chestnuts
Plenty of good chicken or turkey stock, homemade if at all possible, low sodium and high quality if store bought
Salt and pepper to taste
1.) Cut the bread into 1” cubes and spread them on a baking sheet. Put them in a 275 oven and turn regularly until very dry (think croutons) but not browned, though it’s fine if they get a little toasted on the edges.
2.) Saute ground pork and put it in a large mixing bowl.
3.) Melt butter in the same pan and add celery, onion, and sage. Cook until the veggies have become translucent, then add them to the mixing bowl containing the sausage.
4.) While that stuff is cooking, deal with the chestnuts. If they’re fresh, get them out of their shells. You may do this one way or you may do it another, but I have yet to find a foolproof method. Sometimes roasting them works perfectly, and sometimes it does not. Sometimes parboiling is a breeze and sometimes it devolves into a two hour mess that leaves you with a paltry few ounces of actual chestnut. By far the easiest is to acquire already peeled chestnuts.
5.) Cover chestnuts with stock and simmer them for 30 minutes, topping up stock as needed. Add to bowl with ground pork and veggies.
A note about stock: As I said in the ingredient list, making your own stock is far and away the best approach. If it’s a choice between putting time into chestnuts and stock, choose the stock! Make a huge pot to use not just for stuffing, but also for gravy and turkey soup the day after Thanksgiving.
6.) Add bread to other ingredients in mixing bowl and blend. Add stock one ladle at a time. It shouldn’t get soupy, but the bread should be fully saturated. Err on the side of too much stock rather than too little, since quite a bit will cook off. Season to taste.
7.) Beat egg and incorporate it with the other ingredients, then pour the mixture into a 9 x 13 baking pan.
8.) Bake in 350 oven until cooked through, about an hour. If the top looks like it’s getting overcooked cover the pan with a sheet of foil.
9.) The next day heat up leftover stuffing and eat with fried eggs for breakfast. Depending on the number of guests you may wish to make a double recipe to ensure that you can complete this critical step.